Viewers loved his destructive, womanizing Two and a Half Men character—until they realized it wasn't an act
Television is not real. Really, it's not. No, not even Jersey Shore. But sometimes, television bleeds into the world at large, allowing the public a glimpse of the mania that is show-business and affording the news to get sitcom-style laughs. Such a thing happened earlier this year, when Charlie Sheen exploded into a drunken, sex-crazed public meltdown that was, as they say, stranger than fiction.
His behavior hung like a specter over his CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men before finally torpedoing it. Not only was Sheen totally incapable of doing the show, but it would also have been much harder to get an audience on the side of a man who likes to attack prostitutes in hotel rooms. Think a Tiger Woods sitcom. Which is a great idea.
But now, FX has picked up his new show, Anger Management, where he'll play an therapist who's more disturbed than his patients. The network isn't avoiding Sheen's now-checkered reputation—instead, it's banking on his outrageousness to drive ratings. The question is: will audiences stomach more Sheen?
Sheen's Two and a Half Men character, Charlie Harper, was a classic example of an old sitcom character: the improbable man. The improbable man is childish, small, self-obsessed and, to differing degrees, a sociopath. Sometimes he's inexplicably successful. In real life, the other characters, or anyone else, would never associate with him. But he functions as both a plot catalyst and joke delivery system, forcing the main characters into situations they'd never get into otherwise without having to ever feel bad about it. Not only is his existence itself improbable (because does anyone actually get away with this kind of behavior?), he serves to create improbable situations for the other characters, He is a species of the "wildcard" family, which also includes such specimens as "your favorite neighbor" and "the idiot."
The origins of the improbable man are murky—older stock characters like the rogueish Brighella of Italian Commedia Del Arte or Shakesperean semi-clowns like Andrew Agucheek and Toby Belch from Twelfth Night might shed some light. But an early television example is Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show—the stingy, pompous and idiotic newscaster. He was obviously unqualified for his job and usually unpleasant, but there he was, week after week.
Modern shows have a wide range of improbable men. The Office's Dwight and Parks and Recreation's Tom Haverford both contain aspects of him. 30 Rock's Tracy Jordan and Arrested Development's Gob Bluth fall in line. All the characters on Seinfeld fit the bill to one degree or another, same with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Archer's Sterling Archer, as a cartoon, is able to embrace his obnoxiousness with arrogant gusto. Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino of Jersey Shore is an interesting example of an improbable man that we're told is actually real. Neil Patrick Harris's Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother is without a doubt network TV's current star improbable man, perpetually concocting bizarre, elaborate schemes for self-aggrandizement at the expense of his friends.
My personal favorite incarnation is Futurama's in-your-face (his words) robot Bender. In HIMYM, the writers are obligated to make Barney occasionally sympathetic to prevent the audience turning on him outright (Newhart's improbable man, Kirk Devane, had to be removed because the writers didn't do this). But freed from the constraints of humanity, Bender is able to become the platonic ideal of the improbable man. He drinks, smokes, scams, and associates with the Robot Devil. He robs his friends and leaves them for dead. He wants to kill all humans, and makes no apologies for this.